KEVIN MITNICK OPENED THE DOOR ON A RAINY SUNDAY night dressed in black drawstring pants and a 2600 Hacker T-shirt, a homecoming gift from the magazine on the occasion of his January 21 release from Lompoc federal prison. The 36-year-old hacking legend is living in a sprawling, anonymous apartment complex on the outskirts of Los Angeles County where he helps care for his father, who recently underwent triple-bypass surgery. He dropped plans to move to Las Vegas after a probation officer told his mother that his release conditions -- no computers, cell phones or Internet access for three years -- would bar him from working on a 7-Eleven computerized cash register. "These restrictions force me to live as if I was part of the Amish," he says.
That will be quite a change for a man whose hacking career spans two decades. While at least three books and a still-unreleased movie fill out the Mitnick mythology, the most accurate history is probably contained in police and court documents. The guy has been busted time and again for messing around with computers and telephones.
While still a teen, Mitnick was accused of compromising national security by breaking into the NORAD computer (he denies it). In 1983, he was alleged to have used computers at the University of Southern California to access the military's ARPAnet. In 1987, he was busted for penetrating the computers of a software publisher and received three years' probation. In 1988, he was charged with illegally copying proprietary software from Digital Equipment Corp. He also did a stint in a halfway house for "computer addiction."
In 1992, Mitnick apparently violated his probation by hiding out after the FBI searched his home computers for evidence that he broke into telephone-company computers. He was then accused of stealing software from Motorola, Sun and other companies. Finally, in 1995, he was tracked down by national-security insider Tsutomu Shimomura and arrested in Raleigh, North Carolina. The spy-vs.-spy game was chronicled most famously by New York Times reporter John Markoff, whose dramatic reportage Mitnick blames for what many now see as the criminal-justice system's punitive overreaction to his case.
"At the time my story appeared, Kevin was already being hunted by four law-enforcement agencies," Markoff responds. "The idea I created his problems is just false."
U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer, in L.A., initially refused Mitnick a bail hearing; he had already waived his rights to one in North Carolina under the threat of continued solitary confinement. His discovery requests were denied. And, of course, for a long time he was denied use of a telephone, under the theory that, with a phone and a whistle, he could set off a nuclear attack. By 1996, the heavy-handed actions of the court gave rise to the "Free Kevin Mitnick" movement, turning this not particularly popular denizen of the computer underground into a martyr and a hero.
Mitnick eventually pleaded guilty to seven charges in the software-theft case, although he contends that the system's bias forced him to admit to crimes he didn't commit.
"Poor Kevin," responds former federal prosecutor David Schindler (he entered private practice in October). "He only pleaded guilty to the crimes he committed . . . The sad thing with the guy is he's never going to get on with his life."
Whatever prosecutors might think, Mitnick over the past year has undergone a media rehab, going from cyberterrorist to -- well, not that bad a guy. An influential May 1999 Wired News article challenged claims from Nokia, Sun and others that Mitnick's theft cost them $300 million. That paragon of conservative business sense, Forbes magazine, described Mitnick's actions as the equivalent of pieing the mayor. The former hacker got reasonably sympathetic treatment from 60 Minutes, and this week he wrote a guest column for Time magazine.
With all the old fury about Mitnick supplanted by new hysteria over the recent attacks on e-commerce, what was it that he actually did? He read some people's e-mail, and he downloaded some proprietary software. And how sensational is that?
TRIM-LOOKING AFTER HIS PRISON WORKOUTS, THE ONCE-chubby Mitnick handed out soft drinks and a plastic package of rugala cookies before sitting down with the Weekly's Gale Holland to discuss hacking, justice and the recent e-attacks.
L.A.Weekly: Why are you reined in so tightly?
Mitnick: If the government succeeds in creating me as the cyberbogeyman, they can convince the public to give up more rights to privacy in exchange for protecting them against people like me.
Weekly: Why you?
Mitnick: The whole reason why I became a poster boy for the government was John Markoff's false and defamatory article in 1994 on the front page of The New York Times.